Last Updated on May 18, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 664
Perhaps the central theme of Stoppard’s play is the historical, social, and cultural significance of the British Empire. Half of the play is set in India in 1930, during a period of social unrest among Indians struggling for national independence from British colonial rule. Much of the play involves two characters, one Indian, one British, in dialogue over the issue of India as a British colony. For instance, the Indian characters refer to the ‘‘First War of Independence,’’ of 1847, an historical event that the English characters know as the ‘‘Mutiny.’’ Various English characters represent different English attitudes about the politics of India. Flora, the most open-minded English character in the play, is often very aware of her presence in India as a representative of British Imperial power; in a letter to her sister describing a sight-seeing tour during which she was escorted by Indian members of the Theosophical Society, Flora employs a wry sense of humor in describing her status in India: ‘‘I felt like a carnival float representing Empire—or, depending how you look at it, the Subjugation of the Indian People.’’ David Durance, a British government official in India, as well as his fellow members of the Jummapur Cricket Club, express arrogance and disdain for Indians, which is typical of imperialist attitudes toward the people they have colonized. For instance, in the opening lines of Act II, a member of the club named only as an ‘‘Englishman’’ praises the writer Kipling, who was known for his racist, pro-imperialist social, and political attitudes.
Cultural imperialism refers to the phenomenon by which, when one culture conquers and subjugates another, the indigenous culture is decimated, and the dominant culture is imposed upon the subjugated people. In the case of the British colonization of India, the British imposed, among other things, an English educational system upon the Indian population. Educated Indians subsequently became learned in English art and literature, perhaps more so than in the literary and artistic traditions of their own culture. In many exchanges between Flora and Das, Das expresses his love of English literature; Flora questions these values on the basis that he should take more pride in his own culture and less in that of the culture that subjugates him. In an exchange between Anish and Mrs. Swan, Mrs. Swan compares the colonization of India by Britain to the conquest of Britain by the Romans and subsequent imposition of Roman culture upon British culture. Anish, however, corrects this comparison, based on the argument that India was already a highly developed culture before the arrival of Europeans: ‘‘We were the Romans! We were up to date when you were a backward nation. The foreigners who invaded you found a third-world country! Even when you discovered India in the age of Shakespeare, we already had our Shakespeares. And our science—architecture—our literature and art, we had a culture older and more splendid, we were rich!’’ Anish ends with the assertion that Britain plundered Indian culture because of its wealth: ‘‘After all, that’s why you came.’’
The sentiment that inspired Indians to struggle for national independence was one of strong ‘‘nationalism.’’ This sentiment refers to the sense of pride in Indian culture, history, and national identity. The Indian characters in Stoppard’s play exhibit various degrees of nationalist pride, and an attitude of rebellion against British imperialism. The Theosophical Society, of which Flora and Das are both members, was a significant influence in the development of Indian nationalist sentiment, because of the reverence theosophy holds for traditional Indian spiritual beliefs. Flora attempts to instill in Das a sense of nationalism during her discussions with him. She tells him, ‘‘If you don’t start learning to take you’ll never be shot of us. . . . It’s your country and we’ve got it. Everything else is bosh.’’ And Das does eventually engage in an act of nationalist rebellion when he is arrested for throwing a mango during an anti-British riot.